Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 17th March 2021.
My Lords, the integrated review is an extremely sobering document. In part, this is because of the new and changing security threats it outlines, but it is also because the Government’s policy is riddled with flaws and inconsistencies, which means that it does not offer a credible basis for achieving its aims. These are, as the Prime Minister, said,
“to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous, while standing up for our values.”
Will the review do so? Take its central strategic tenet. According to the Statement:
“Our approach will place diplomacy first.”
For a nation of our size, military capabilities and history, this is a very sensible priority. But what have the Government done to demonstrate that they understand what such an approach requires?
The first requirement is that the UK should be a trusted partner. Here, the Government’s track record is dire. They have twice in the past year broken their pledges under the EU withdrawal Act and Irish protocol and find themselves being taken to court by our most important trading and security partner for breaking the law. Other countries are watching and asking how much our word is now really worth.
The Government cannot be trusted either on their legal commitments to development assistance. They have cut development aid, and with it our ability to wield soft power, at a time when such assistance was never more needed. The Prime Minister says that the cut will be restored when the fiscal situation allows. Is it not the truth, however, that the Government used the pandemic as a convenient pretext to make the cut and have no intention whatsoever of reversing it any time soon?
Another aspect of wielding soft power is to stand up for the values that we wish to promulgate. These include the promotion of human rights. Yet the Government make it pretty clear in the document that trade will trump human rights, not least in our dealings with China. The Foreign Secretary admitted as much yesterday, saying that the UK would be willing to strike trade deals with countries that violate international standards and human rights. Will the Minister tell us whether that is really the Government’s position? If so, what does their alleged commitment to human rights actually amount to?
Throughout the review, the Government largely airbrush out the importance to the UK in every possible respect of the EU. They fail to admit that Brexit will make us poorer, less secure and less influential internationally. Instead, they blandly state that,
“we will enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the European Union.”
I wonder if anybody has told the noble Lord, Lord Frost.
When it comes to military spending, the additional £16 billion promised last autumn does not even fill the black hole in the procurement budget. Our Armed Forces will remain short of armed vehicles, fighter planes, submarines and frigates. Yet the Prime Minister is proposing a tilt to the Indo-Pacific that does not just involve diplomacy and trade but the sending of an aircraft carrier, wholly dependent on US escorts and planes, to the South China Sea. This is but one example of our being increasingly dependent on the United States. It is certainly not the action of a sovereign global power.
The one area where the review sets out a wholly new commitment is the proposed increase in nuclear warheads to 260, some 45% more than the number planned for the mid-2020s by the coalition Government. The review says that this is necessary,
“in recognition of the evolving security environment”.
What on earth does that mean? The review states that the Government might consider using nuclear weapons against chemical or biological attacks or cyberattacks, even by non-nuclear states. This is a massive expansion of the potential role of nuclear weapons and appears to be in breach of our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. How can the Government possibly justify such a reckless, dangerous and potentially illegal policy shift?
When it comes to trade, the review repeats the Government’s commitment to have a trade agreement in place to cover 80% of our trade by 2022. Surely, this is completely unrealistic. Our combined trade with the US, India and China comes to more than 20%, and there is no chance of reaching a trade agreement with any of them in the foreseeable future. Why, then, is the completely unachievable 80% target repeated? It is simply pie in the sky.
The document is suffused with such fanciful and misleading assertions. To pick one from many: it trumpets the support the Government have given to our creative and cultural sectors, yet their failure to maintain the ability of our creative and cultural sectors to perform in the EU is decimating them. Try telling a young musician, facing the cancellation of all her European work, to pivot to the east. It would be a joke if it were not so serious.
This review demonstrates the Prime Minister’s trademark policy of trying to have your cake and eating it. It avoids hard choices, particularly in relation to China, instead of making them. By pivoting away from Europe, it ignores both history and the basic rule that security, defence and foreign policy should start, not finish, with your neighbours. It is a truly depressing document from a truly depressing Government.